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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​Another Number to Remember

Our lives are punctuated, as well as defined, by numbers. How many of us can remember them all? We have National Insurance numbers, car registration numbers, mobile phone numbers, PIN numbers and all the rest. For expats in Spain, another number is required that is probably the most important one of them all, the NIE.

Expats arriving in Spain and the Canary Islands who intend to remain for a period of time, quickly realise that they need to register with the local Town Hall and police station before they can achieve anything worthwhile; they need an NIE number. These letters stand for ‘Numero de Identificacion de Extranjero’, which means ‘foreigners identification number’. It is a series of numbers currently beginning with the letter ‘X’ and ends with another letter.

When we moved to Spain, achieving the exulted status of someone with an NIE was not easy. I recall queuing for several days outside an office in Alicante, only to be turned away when the magic quota for the day, of around 100 NIEs, had been issued. We would then take our place very early the following morning, complete with picnic chairs, a bottle of water and a pack of sandwiches, for the same process to be repeated. It the end, we became so angry that we made a deal with a local car salesman from whom we had planned to purchase a car once we had obtained the NIE. We told him that we would only purchase a car from him if he obtained an NIE number for us. Surprisingly, we both had our NIE within 24 hours of the deal being made.

So why is this number so important? When expats want to open a bank account they will need their NIE number, as well as for buying a car, taking out a contract for electricity and water, taking out insurance, asking for a mobile phone contract or SIM card, buying or renting a property, applying for a mortgage and selling a property. The NIE number is also needed when living and working in Spain, as this is used for completing tax forms, opening a new business, and applying to register as self-employed. In short, you can do very little in Spain legally without it.

Foreigners who wish to become resident in Spain must provide proof that they have private health insurance, or proof of paying into Spain’s own insurance scheme for expats that gives access to the Spanish National Health Service; for more details about this, please see my Expat Survival website. In addition, foreigners must be able to prove that they have enough funds to support themselves and their family, or prove that they have a contract of employment, or intend to register as self-employed.

Many expats moving to Spain use an English-speaking lawyer to help them to apply for an NIE number if they do not speak Spanish fluently. Nowadays, I usually suggest that newly arrived expats employ a ‘Gestor’ or an ‘Asesor’ who can do some of the nifty footwork needed for some of the bureaucratic high jumps that are necessary when moving to Spain. An NIE is usually produced swiftly and without complication, assuming of course that the correct paperwork is available to allow this to happen.

Expats can, of course, do this for themselves, but they need to be able to speak good Spanish in order to understand and complete the process. An NIE number can be applied for at any foreigners’ office and some police stations, which are listed on the Direccion General de la Policia website. It is important to carefully check exactly what documents are needed, as these vary from region to region, between offices, as well as between the members of staff dealing with the application!

It is necessary to complete a form requesting an NIE, the ‘Solicitud de Numero de Identidad de Extranjero y Certificados’, known as EX15, which should be presented with a passport size photo of the applicant and a photocopy of the passport, but the original passport always needs to be shown as well.

Usually a date is given when the NIE can be collected from the office, and applicants are also given a form to take to a bank to pay the current fee for completion. The proof of payment given by the bank is then taken to the foreigners’ office where the precious NIE certificate can be collected. Some regions insist that the applicant visits the foreigners’ office at least for collection. Application times vary across the Spanish regions, but these offices should be able to give an approximate timescale.

Many expats may wish to undertake tasks such as this for themselves, since it is all part of the expat experience and gives a fascinating insight into life in bureaucratic Spain. It can also be an amusing experience, if they participate in the right frame of mind and do not exhibit anger or frustration at the inevitable delays or requests for yet another document. My last piece of essential advice is to stress the importance of always taking along a picnic chair, bottle of water and sandwiches – just in case!

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: and or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney

Letters from the Atlantic

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Carnival Time Again!

Letters from the Atlantic

Christmas, New Year and Three Kings Day are all over at last, as is Blue Monday (16 January), which is the most depressing day of the year, according to a happy band of media reporters. It is now time to shake away those winter blues, search out a fabulous costume and get ready for Carnival – Canaries style!

Carnival has been celebrated across the Canary Islands since 1556 just before the Christian period called Lent, forty days before Easter, and often around Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras. Lent previously meant that Christians gave up eating meat, so just before this forty-day period the Canary Islanders were determined to take the term ‘party’ or fiesta to a higher level, which normally involves locals dressing up in fabulous costumes, when often men become women and women become men, just for the fun of it, and of course to have your photo taken.

The dates of Easter change each year and so the date of Carnival across the Canary Islands also changes, so that although the capital cities of each of the Canary Islands have the biggest parades and open air entertainment, many smaller towns also hold their own Carnival parades. These parades have large floats that carry many in amazing costumes who often throw sweets or even offer those watching small cups of Canarian rum. Before the big parades there are also competitions for the best Carnival Queen (ladies), Carnival Dame (older ladies), Carnival Junior Queen (young girls) and of course the best Drag Queen (guess)! There are also singing competitions called Murgas, when local people on each island sing songs that can often be very rude to those living on other islands. Carnival starts when a large sardine appears, and it ends when the sardine is taken out to sea, where it dies, and many spectators will be seen crying! It is an emotional and passionate event, often reflecting the partying frolics of the previous night!

Expat residents and tourists that visit during this Carnival period should make sure that they join in the party and learn more about local customs and traditions. There are many shops near tourist areas that sell good value Carnival costumes, so there is no reason why foreigners cannot join in the Canary Islanders’ celebrations. Most municipalities have colourful posters that advertise the local events of Carnival, but some places tend to think that Carnival only involves local people, and they will already know when and where to go. The information shown on The Canary Islander website give dates and times for Carnival events in all the Canary Islands, but it is a good idea to check with local Tourist Information Offices too. Take plenty of photos and selfies, because the rich cultural mix of Canary Islanders have strong connections with South America, Cuba and other Caribbean islands, which means that when Carnival comes to the Canary Islands it challenges the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, and some think it is even better!

One word of warning for those visiting Santa Cruz in La Palma for Carnival! The locals also celebrate White Monday (the day before Shrove Tuesday), when locals only wear white clothes, and then after a certain signal, throw white talcum powder over everyone. Los Indianos celebrates Canary Islanders who were previously transported to Spanish colonies, and returned when they had become successful. So there is a point to White Monday, but the talcum powder goes everywhere, and those with breathing problems should watch from a distance, as the powder storm spreads quickly and is not the healthiest substance to breathe in. Las Palmas in Gran Canaria also celebrates White Monday in the old streets of Triana and Vegueta, with special permission of the islanders of La Palma.

Carnivals in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz de Tenerife are often billed as “Second Only to Rio”, so if you really would like to take part in a huge, crazy, frivolous spectacle of colour and vitality, make sure you don’t miss it! You can find out more information and the dates of the largest events on the islands on The Canary Islander website:

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: and or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney

Footprints in the Sand - Barrie Mahoney

Getting Tough on Builders

Letters from the Atlantic

Since the World economic recession in 2008, and many would say long before that, builders and developers have been accused of holding onto land that has been agreed for development purposes in the hope that eventually it will increase in value. At that time, and only when the price of land and property shows a significant mark up, will building work be completed.

As we have seen in the Canary Islands, Spain, as well as in the United Kingdom, the result of this approach has been a shortage of affordable housing due to building projects being put on hold or abandoned. Many young families in the Canary Islands still live with their parents with little hope of ever being able to afford to rent or buy a home of their own. Despite promises from governments, it is likely that it will be many years before promises can be fulfilled, if ever.

As far as repairs to infrastructure is concerned, one Spanish municipality has had enough and is going to take drastic action against such lethargy in the name of profit, which many would say is long overdue. The plan is to clamp down on developers that have not completed work that had been agreed. The Department of Planning will seize around 500,000 euros worth of bonds, which builders and promoters are obliged to lodge with the municipality at the planning stage, for agreed road repairs, pavements and public areas. These bonds are required at the initial stage of granting all building licences for the main purpose of ensuring that work is completed.

This sum is linked to around 60 permits that date back to the building boom of the pre-2008 period. The Municipality has examined each case in detail, and itemised the cost of agreed works that still need to be fulfilled. If the companies concerned are still trading they will have the option to immediately fulfil the agreement, or the bond funds will be seized so that the municipality can complete the outstanding work. This seems to be an obvious response and is the main purpose of the bond.

In the Canary Islands and Spain, there are many construction projects that remain incomplete. There are shopping centres, housing developments, roads and public buildings that have either been left abandoned at an early stage of work, or where the work has never started at all. In all cases, a bond should have been lodged with the municipality to ensure that work is completed in time. However, in some cases, close fraternal links between developers and council officials ensure that drastic action, including confiscation of the bond to ensure that work is completed, is never taken, and many projects remain deep frozen in a kind of building ‘limbo’.

We often hear of the need for rapid economic growth and the creation of employment opportunities, as well as building new homes. Maybe ensuring the completion of outstanding building projects, including building on land already earmarked for residential development, would be a welcome contribution to both the housing shortage, as well as providing employment opportunities.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: and or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Letters from the Atlantic

I have always enjoyed gardening. I don't mean the heavy-duty grind of growing vegetables, cutting hedges or mowing the lawn, but setting and growing plants that actually do something to lift the spirit. I like looking at, and admiring other people’s gardens, visiting National Trust and other gardens in the UK and finding out more about particular plants that take my fancy.

Of course, when we moved to Spain, my gardening habits had to abruptly change. Initially, I was faced with a barren plot, and mostly covered with those dreaded reddish-brown outdoor tiles that the Spanish love so much. I was fortunate, because there was a soil border where I could indulge my gardening fancies, and where a helpful neighbour encouraged me to install an underground watering system to ensure survival of most of my newly acquired plants during some of those blistering hot summer months in the Costa Blanca.

Later, when we moved to the Canary Islands, we had another problem. I was faced with the torment of living in an apartment with no outdoor space. The best that I could achieve was a few, mostly miserable looking pot plants on a table close to one of the few windows that had some light. Although it was only planned as a temporary move, I think it was one of my most miserable experiences in Spain. How I craved for an outdoor space where I could grow a few plants. It was at that point that I realised how much plants and the opportunity for a little light gardening meant to me.

When we finally moved to our present home, we were fortunate in finding a property where we could have a garden with shrubs and maybe plant a small tree or two. Once again, the builders had unhelpfully laid most of the outdoor space with those wretched patio tiles, but these were quite easily removed and replaced with soil. Beneath the soil we installed a watering system, and covered the soil with plastic sheeting to cut down on the weeding, and after a final layer of stones, we began to create our garden.

I am not a great lover of pots on patios, since we are surrounded by neighbours who, in an initial surge of gardening enthusiasm, buy a collection of those shiny blue, concrete pots, install a few beautiful plants and then forget to water them. Many patios that I see are little more than graveyards for stumps of plants withering in these blue, shiny concrete planters. Whilst it is a huge generalisation, there is some truth in the fact that many Spanish people have little patience or understanding of plants and gardens. Their first inclination when they see bare soil is to concrete it over and lay yet more patio tiles.

Over the years that we have lived in Spain, I have learned not to grow plants that I used to love in the UK. It took me several years to finally understand the need to grow plants that suit local growing conditions. I don't mean cactus either; I don't mind some of the non-prickly, flowering varieties, but they are not really my favourite plants. For me, this has meant moving away from growing azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias that were my favourites when I lived in Dorset. I now grow plants that include lavender, roses, anthuriums, aloe vera and even geraniums, which I always detested in the UK, to ensure all round colour and interest, as well as the ability to survive the excessive heat, dust and windy conditions that are now part of life in our Canarian garden.

Roses grow exceptionally well here, and I have several that are many years old and need to be replaced. However, when trying to find new roses in local garden centres I am told that they rarely stock roses, since they do not grow well in the Canary Islands. Well, they do grow well in our garden and although I feed them from time to time, I never have to spray them against black spot and other conditions that can be the bane of gardeners in the UK.

Although many of our UK and Irish friends understand and appreciate our small garden, the reaction from our Spanish friends and neighbours is usually one of amused tolerance, and with great concern expressed about what they perceive as a large water bill, as well as all the extra work that they think is necessary in maintaining even a small garden.

Too much is often made of national characteristics and cultural differences; however, for me, the love or hate of gardening is one of the big differences that I see between British and Spanish people. For me, it is time and money well spent. Our dog, Bella, enjoys helping me in the garden too.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: and or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney

Footprints in the Sand

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